Playwright: Marta J. Effenger
At: ETA Creative Arts Foundation,
7558 S. South Chicago Ave.
Phone: ( 773 ) 752-3955; $25
Runs through: March 23
Deep in Act II of Whispers Want to Holler, a character identified only as Washerwoman ( Makeba Ayo Pace ) tells the gruesome tale of how she was lynched in the late 1800s. Her torch then was carried by her daughter ( Daryl Charisse ) in the Baptist Women's Convention of 1900, inspiring, in turn, a young Black spelling champion ( Michael Cordero on opening night ) . At that point, the play snaps to life and rivets the audience with a dramatic focus altogether lacking before Washerwoman speaks. Up until then, Whispers Want to Holler is confusing.
There's an old rule-of-thumb of short story writing that applies equally well to playwriting: since every word counts, you don't describe a gun unless that gun is going to be fired. Whispers Want to Holler has several guns ( figuratively ) that it doesn't fire, setting up audience expectations that aren't fulfilled. The play opens with a New Orleans jazz funeral, but there's nothing the least bit Big Easy or even Southern about the play, which might take place in any gentrifying large city. Why establish a particular locale if it's of no meaning?
Early in Act I, the play establishes that the central character, Olive ( Carolyn Nelson ) , and her family have owned this house for over 70 years. When a gaggle of ghosts show up, we think they are Olive's forebears returning to urge her not to sell the house to the gentrifyers who want it. But, except for one ghost, they are not related to her, summoned instead by the various objects to be found in the little antique store that Olive ran with her son, whose death is marked by the opening funeral. Her son's murder, and the gentrification offer, are overlapping but completely separate events, so using the death as a springboard to the play's real issuethe meaning of a place in human termsis both misleading and inefficient.
The author, Marta T. Effinger, is a young product of the eta Creative Arts Foundation's admirable writing program. The best moments of this play certainly show her promise in flashes of humor, power and poetry, if only she can master structure and motivation. My advice to her is to resurrect the never-seen son, and make the play a debate between the two of them over gentrification. Get rid of the red herring of his death. Next, Ms. Effinger needs to find convincing personal stories for each of her ghosts that are as strong as Washerwoman's. Finally, Olive needs to be more sympathetic. As written, and as directed by Runako Jahi, Olive comes across as angry, hostile and unwilling to listen. Gentle her out and give her more dimensions.